Live Long...And Prosper?

By Julia Caranci

A look at the bright and dark sides of longevity in Japan

Elderly Japanese people We all want to live to be 100 or older if possible. Not only that, but we also want to be healthy and vital. That's not too much to ask, is it?

We are fortunate to be living in a time when medical advances and other factors have made this an attainable goal for many people.

But it is the Japanese who seem to have cornered the market on longevity.

Over the last three decades, Japan changed from being a country with high infant death rates and low life expectancies, to having the lowest infant death rate and at an average of 82 years - the highest life expectancy of any country in the world.

But comparing data on health care we begin to see it may not be just medical advances that make the difference.

Japanese population aging Japan spends significantly less resources on health care than North Americans do, only 6.8 percent of its gross domestic, compared to about 10 percent in Canada.

And many health experts say it is not how medical science deals with diseases of the body that create an environment of longevity, but the quality of people's lives that allow them to remain healthy into their 70s, 80s or even longer.

Many experts believe the key to Japanese longevity lies in their unique and varied diet, which differs greatly from the types of foods consumed in Western nations.

The Japanese diet is made up mainly of foods with very low cholesterol content that are virtually free of harmful saturated fats, found in many dairy products, meat, butter and myriad processed foods. The average North American consumes a much higher proportion of saturated fats, with fast foods, packaged foods and meat products being virtual staples in the North American diet, a fact that many health experts say causes obesity and shortens lives.

In comparison, the Japanese eat mainly seafood, including white fish, salmon, eel, prawns, shark and many others. Unlike red meat and processed foods, fish abounds in polyunsaturated fats, which are considered far healthier than the saturated varieties. Japanese cooking uses seaweeds like Kombu and Nori, which are high in iodine as well as minerals and other healthful ingredients. Also, many of these foods are eaten raw, meaning consumers receive the maximum nutritional benefit.

Another staple in the Japanese diet is rice, which is considered by many dieticians to be a very balanced, nutritious and neutral food.

Much has also been made of the life expectancy in Okinawa, a chain of small islands in southern Japan where people are living longer lives than anywhere on earth with many living well into their 80s. There, the death rates due to strokes, cancer and heart disease - the top three causes of death in Japan are significantly less than in the rest of the country.

Elderly Japanese people What is the reason for the extended life span of those living in Okinawa? Again, diet may hold the answer. In Okinawa, the consumption of sugar and salt constitutes only about a quarter of the average amount consumed in the rest of Japan. Okinawans also eat far more vegetables and twice as much fish as other Japanese.

It may be that the Okinawans are simply eating an even healthier version of the Japanese diet, which itself one of the healthiest on the planet. But lifestyle is probably also a significant factor. With its year-round warm climate and abundant nature, Okinawa is something of a tropical paradise compared to much of the mainland. The islands are not without their problems they carry the burden of a disproportionately large number US military bases and enjoy lower levels of prosperity than the rest of the country. But stress, and its implications for health, doesn't seem to plague Okinawans the way it does the "salarymen" and "office ladies" of Tokyo or Osaka.

But with its healthy population and ever-extending lifespans, it's not all good news for Japan.

In his study, "Aging in Japan", longevity expert Dr. Hideo Ibe has discovered a troubling and potentially irreversible trend.